Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Adeline Harris’ masterpiece signature quilt

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

The Metropolitan Museum of Art contains many marvels of history and art. The Adeline Harris Sears Tumbling Block with Signatures quilt stands up to any of them for its uniqueness, artistry and unparalleled capture of the history and society of mid-19th century America. Quilts incorporating signatures weren’t new when the teenaged Adeline began her project in 1856, but they were community works, the product of families and churches working together to create a piece for an event like a wedding or baptism. The Met has a lovely example of that type of quilt: an Album quilt by members of the Brown and Turner families of Baltimore, begun in 1846. Adeline’ quilt is something else entirely.

The signatures include congressmen (including Elihu Washburne of Illinois, John Sherman of Ohio), senators (including Solomon Foot of Vermont, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and William H. Seward of New York, later Lincoln’s Secretary of State), governors (including Sam Houston of Texas, William Buckingham of Connecticut) Union Army generals (including Ambrose Burnside, George McClellan, Joseph Hooker and George Meade, victor of Gettysburg), an astonishing eight presidents of the United States (Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant) and two vice presidents (Schuyler Colfax and Henry Wilson).

There are also notable academics, university presidents, journalists and editors, actors, reformers, scientists, artists, poets, essayists, novelists, folklorists, clergymen from numerous denominantions. Rubbing shoulders on this extraordinary quilt are the autographs of Samuel Morse, Horace Greeley, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Julia Ward Howe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Cullen Bryant, Alexandre Dumas, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Adeline assembled a who’s who of 19th century society for her quilt, the majority of which are still very much luminaries of their fields, even when, as in the case of most of the clergymen, they are not as well known as they were in their lifetimes.

The tumbling blocks pattern is characterized by a trompe l’oeil that gives it a 3D cube effect. Adeline Harris showcased exceptional skill and mastery in her needlework and fabric choice, emphasizing the 3D effect with her arrangement of the varied patterns of silk pieces. The white pieces with autographs all serve as the top of the cubes, while the two visible sides, corner center, are formed by contrasting silk panels. To these she sewed black silk triangles, thereby creating a deep, velvety background to make the cubes pop.

There are 360 blocks with signatures and 10 signatureless partial blocks in the top border, arranged in 20 columns and 36 rows (plus a half row up top). Adeline first put together the blocks, then stitched them together as columns, then stitched the columns together to form the rows. There are 1,840 pieces of silk of 150 different patterns and colors in the entire quilt, most of them imported from Europe and first used in clothing, hats and ribbons before being reincarnated in the quilt. Even the black triangles are diverse, with five different kinds of silks used to create the background.

Adeline’s stitching is the peak of quilt craftsmanship. Look at how sharp and regular the blocks are, how flawlessly they are sewed together so all the corners meet. Then there’s the condition of the fabrics themselves. These scraps were lovingly preserved for who knows how long, and then the quilt itself was preserved in pristine condition by the family for another 140 years. The colors are still brilliant with only minimal fading on the more delicate pink shades.

The quilt also showcases its maker’s logical mind, mathematical precision and thorough engagement in the politics and literature of her time. She was the daughter of a prosperous Rhode Island textile mill owner and had received what was considered a proper education for a girl of her class (mostly from private tutors in her home, plus three years at private boarding schools). Her granddaughter described her as “a great scholar and student with a brilliant mind” and the quilt certainly doesn’t contradict that glowing report. She placed the autographs in categories — presidents and vice presidents in column seven, generals in columns two and three, authors arranged first by gender, then by prominence, then by genre, etc. It’s like a giant matrix of 19th century celebrities.

The quilt is also a testament to her persistence, stamina and focus. It took her 11 years to collect all of the autographs (1856-1867), and even more years to stitch them together. This is evidenced by her placement of President Grant who was not president when he signed her silk diamond and his vice presidents Colfax and Wilson who signed theirs in the late 1850s long before they reached their highest offices. That means she worked on this quilt for nigh on two decades.

One of the personages Adeline wrote to soliciting her autograph was Sarah J. Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. She explained her project in a letter that so impressed Hale that she wrote a two-part article about the quilt, describing its ambitious reach and design and complimenting its creator for her ingenunity and needlework abilities. Hale saw this quilt as both “intellectual” and “moral” endeavour, as it required brain power and taste to piece together the riot of color and pattern into a matched and pleasing geometry, and a virtuous understanding of “the fitness of things” to pick celebrities whose deeds and talents would make them worthy of being cast in this silken firmament.

In the April 1864 issue of Godey’s Lady Book, Hale wrote in “Autograph Bedquilt”, the first part of the article:

Notwithstanding the comprehensive design we are attempting to describe, we have no doubt of its successful termination. The letter of the young lady bears such internal evidence of her capability, that we feel certain she has the power to complete her work if her life is spared. And when we say that she has been nearly eight years engaged on this quilt, and seems to feel now all the enthusiasm of a poetical temperament working out a grand invention that is to be a new pleasure and blessing to the world, we are sure all our readers will wish her success. Who knows but in future ages, her work may be looked at like the Bayeux Tapestry, not only as a marvel of woman’s ingenious and intellectual industry; but as affording an idea of the civilization of our times, and giving a notion of the persons as estimated in history.

You called it, Ms. Hale.

Adeline’s daughter Sophie and her daughters in turn recognized what a masterpiece their mother and grandmother had created. It does not appear to have been used as a bedspread, but rather was treasured and preserved most careful. There is evidence that it was hung for display at some point.

Even so, close examination of the back of the quilt found an amusing interlude of censorship in its history. The last diamond was covered up at some point by a patch. The needle holes are still visible even though the patch had been removed by the time the Met acquired the quilt. Apparently the poem written on that piece, thought to be by Nathaniel P. Willis whose signature appears in column 18, caused some pearls to be clutched resulting in the application of a quilted fig leaf which thankfully did not endure. I hope your blushing eyes can handle it.

Miss Addie pray excuse
My disobliging Muse,
She contemplates with dread
So many in a Bed.

EDIT: I considered including a full list of the signatures in this post, but it is very long and my only source is a pdf of a 1998 journal article from the Met so formatting it for posting is a bit of a nightmare. Instead, I’m attaching the article with the appendix that lists all the signatures, complete with greetings and brief biographical line identifying the signers, by column. The appendix begins on page 277 (page 15 of the pdf). (But read the whole article because it’s awesome.)

“A Marvel of Woman’s Ingenious and Intellectual Industry”: The Adeline Harris Sears Autograph Quilt, by Amelia Peck, Associate Curator, American Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum Journal issue 33, 1998.

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Album with earliest Harriet Tubman picture digitized

Tuesday, March 6th, 2018

The Library of Congress, ever on the ball, has completed the digitization of abolitionist Emily Howland’s carte-de-visite album. The 48 pictures date to the 1860s and include the earliest extant portrait of Harriet Tubman. The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture pooled their resources and bought the album at auction a year ago for $162,500 (including fees).

Since then, the album has been thoroughly conserved by LoC experts. Its damaged cover was reattached, the leather was conditioned and treated and each picture was cleaned. Researchers have scoured records and identified all but three of the sitters. Digitization specialists from the Library and the Smithsonian, both of which have been at the forefont of efforts to digitize their collections, have scanned the portraits in high resolution and uploaded them to the LoC website.

There are a number of prominent abolitionists, both people she knew personally (Colonel Charles W. Folsom, Charles Sumner) and celebrities (Charles Dickens, Princess Dagmar, Empress of Russia). Harriet Tubman’s photograph depicts her as a stylish woman in her 40s just after the Civil War, not with the care-worn visage of her older years that is usually associated with her.

Also in the Howland album is the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African American man elected to the United States House of Representatives. He was never seated because his opponent contested the election results even though Menard had won a clear majority of the vote and the House denied him his seat based solely on the color of his skin. Future president James Garfield, then a Representative from Ohio’s 19th district, and a strident abolitionist who was pro-Reconstruction and pro-universal male suffrage, stated so outright when he said “it was too early to admit a Person of Color to the U.S. Congress.” Menard delivered a speech advocating he be seated, making him the first African American to address Congress. Even though his opponent Caleb Hunt did not address the chamber, when it came time for the House to vote on which candidate to seat, neither one of them got close to the necessary majority.

Not all of Emily Howland’s friends and colleagues in the album were pioneers, heroes and icons. Poor Susie Bruce was one of her protéges, a student who lived with her for the school year and whom she arranged to send to Oberlin College to continue her education. Howland insisted that her mentees work to pay for their room and board, however, so that they wouldn’t be distracted by boys and pretty clothes, and Susan was sickly — she suffered from a chronic “side ache” — and neither a great student nor capable of accomplishing all the tasks set to her in her off-hours. Also she liked pretty clothes.

When Susie got sicker and Emily received reports from her host that she wasn’t working at all hard, Howland had her withdraw from college before her freshman year was over. She returned to Washington, now very seriously ill, and four months later she was dead, felled by an undiagnosed “disease in her bowels” that was had been the source of her mysterious side ache. Emily wrote this rather faint praise about Susie after her death: “So all is over, hopes, fears and plans, the grave ends all. I think she would not have disappointed me could she have lived.”

She was doubtless happier with another of her protéges pictured in the album, Sidney Taliaferro. She was the daughter of freedman Benjamin Taliaferro whose extended family Emily had settled on a large parcel of land she bought in Northumberland County, Virginia. This was her way of keeping the broken “40 acres and a mule” promises. If the government wouldn’t acquire land for freedmen, then she would. She had a school built there, the Howland Chapel School, to educate their children. (The building is still standing today largely unaltered and on the National Register of Historic Places.) Sidney did so well that Emily brought her up north to attend a secondary school run by a relative of hers in New York state and then onto college. She became a school teacher too, and after a few years in Maryland, returned to Virginia and taught at the Howland School. When Emily was in advanced age, she gave the teacher’s cottage she had built and 14 acres of land to Sidney and her husband Chester Boyer.

“Now people in our nation’s capital and around the world can see these important figures from American history and learn more about their lives,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “We are proud this historic collaboration with the Smithsonian has made these pictures of history available to the public online.”

The public will have a chance to view the rare album for the first time in person at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in a special exhibit later this year. The digital images also will be presented through the museum’s website.

“This photo album allows us to see Harriet Tubman in a riveting, new way; other iconic portraits present her as either stern or frail. This new photograph shows her relaxed and very stylish. Sitting with her arm casually draped across the back of a parlor chair, she’s wearing an elegant bodice and a full skirt with a fitted waist. Her posture and facial expression remind us that historical figures are far more complex than most people realize. This adds significantly to what we know about this fierce abolitionist. And that’s a good thing,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring and a macro-XRF scan

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

Johannes Vermeer’s 1665 masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring will be introduced to the latest and greatest technologies in a new study that will take place in the glorious Golden Room of the Mauritshuis in full view of the public. The Girl in the Spotlight project will examine Vermeer’s iconic bejeweled maiden using state-of-the-art scientific tools and methodologies. It’s the first time the painting has been examined since it was last conserved in 1994, and while no new conservation needs have developed in the 25 years since then, researchers want to take advantage of the great leaps forward in technology to learn more about how Vermeer painted the work and the materials he used.

The project began on February 26th and runs through March 11th. The research team includes experts from the Rijksmuseum, the Delft University of Technology, the University of Antwerp and Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) as well other international institutions and the Mauritshuis’ own researchers. The first step is an intensively detailed scan over the course of several days with a macro-X-ray fluorescence scanner. The MA-XRF machine scans the painting one millimeter at a time creating a detailed map beyond anything that could have been conceived in 1994.

Because Girl will not be in her usual place in the gallery during the two weeks of the study, the Mauritshuis created a glass-walled studio within its Golden Room so that visitors could still catch a glimpse of her. She will be difficult to see at times, depending on what analysis she’s being subjected to, so museum staff put a 3D reproduction of the painting up in her regular spot to give visitors something interesting to view up close and capture in pictures even as they enjoy the unique opportunity to see the real Girl with a Pearl Earring undergoing examination with all kinds of bells and whistles. The company that created the repro, Océ, used a proprietary system they call “elevated printing” which layers ink on the surface to create a dead-on accurate impression of the impasto, texture and brushstrokes, not just a flattened image of the original.

The Girl with a Pearl Earring will go back on display in Room 15 on March 12th. Two days before then, on March 10th, the museum will offer public lectures by conservator and head researcher Abbie Vandivere and curator Lea van der Vinde that will explain everything we know about the painting and the study taking place in the Golden Room.

The information they’ll be able to convey is limited because it’s going to take a while to analyze all the data. The final results will be published when the analysis is complete. Meanwhile, you can follow along with the research, which will be taking place 24 hours a day, not just during museum hours, on Abbie Vandivere’s outstanding blog. She posts daily updates on the work they’re doing, the tech they’re using, sharing her conservator’s eye view with fascinating photos of what she sees in the microscope, the painting’s history at the museum from acquisition through multiple restorations and tons more. If you’ve ever wanted to know what the job of painting conservator at one of the greatest museums in the world entails, then this blog will kick raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens right off the list and be your new favorite thing.

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Slavery Museum acquires painting of abolition icon

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

You’d think paintings of an enchained slave asking “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” would be plentiful. The image of a kneeling enslaved African appealing to our shared humanity appeared on everything from jewelry to snuff boxes to broadsides since its inception as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in England in 1787. Potter and member Josiah Wedgwood had the idea of making jasperware cameos of that image and slogan as medallions to promote the Society’s goal of abolishing the slave the trade. He manufactured hundreds of them and gave them to his fellow members to distribute. They had an immediate impact, creating one of the first wildly successful political logos and slogans with worldwide reach.

Society co-founder Thomas Clarkson wrote in the second volume of his History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (published in 1807):

“Wedgwood took the seal of the committee, … for his model; and he produced a beautiful cameo, of a less size, of which the ground was a most delicate white, but the Negro, who was seen imploring compassion in the middle of it, was in his own native colour. Mr. Wedgwood made a liberal donation of these, when finished, among his friends. I received from him no less than five hundred of them myself. They, to whom they were sent, did not lay them up in their cabinets, but gave them away likewise. They were soon, like The Negro’s Complaint, in different parts of the kingdom. Some had them inlaid in gold on the lid of their snuff-boxes. Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length, the taste for wearing them became general; and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity, and freedom.”

Even after the trade and slavery itself were abolished in Britain, the abolitionist icon continued to thrive in countries like the US where ending slavery was still a distant prospect. And yet, the symbol was converted into an actual painted subject surprisingly seldom. In the UK, there are only two known. One is in the Wilberforce House Museum in Hull. The other was in a private collection but has now been acquired by the National Museums Liverpool for the International Slavery Museum.

Am Not I A Man and A Brother was painted around 1800 and depicts the enslaved man kneeling against a background of a Caribbean sugar plantation. It was purchased for £50,000 funded by grants from the Art Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures program.

Stephen Carl-Lokko, Curator, International Slavery Museum said:

“This acquisition represents the first painting ever to be acquired by National Museums Liverpool to depict the powerful and resonant iconography of abolition and we are very pleased to add it to our collection.

“Resistance is a key part of the history we bring to life in the International Slavery Museum and abolition is a very important part of this wider narrative.

“The painting is a remarkable surviving product of the early phase of the British movement to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade during the 18th and 19th century.”

The work is not going on display yet. It needs to undergo conservation first. Conservators expect it will be cleaned up and ready for exhibition by the end of the year.

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Purloined Klimt drawing found in secretary’s closet

Sunday, February 18th, 2018


A mystery almost 70 years in the making was solved when a lost drawing by Gustav Klimt was returned to the Lentos Museum in Linz, Austria, after the death of a former secretary who turns out to have stolen it decades ago. The sensual drawing of two women, Zwei Liegende (“Two Reclining Figures”), was one of four loaned to the museum (then the Neue Galerie der Stadt Linz) by Linz-born artist Olga Jäger in 1951. The other three were pieces by Egon Schiele. In 1964 it was loaned to the Albertina Museum in Vienna and returned without incident. That is the last mention of the four loaned works on the historical record.

Olga Jäger died in 1965 and it seemed the disappearance of the drawing might fly under the radar forever, but in 1990 Olga’s niece-in-law, wife of nephew Kurt Jäger, sent the museum a letter asking that the loaned works be returned. Museum staff looked for the art in their own stores and in other city and regional collections, but came up empty. The niece’s sons pressed the case in 2006 and again a thorough search was fruitless.

In 2011, the Jäger descendants sued the City of Linz and were awarded damages in the amount of €100,000 ($124,000) for the loss of one of the Schiele works (“Paar”). Damages got even more damaging in 2017, when the Linz Regional Court ordered the city to pay the Jägers €8.21 million (about $10 million) for the other three. The Klimt drawing was the least costly of them, assessed at €100,000.

This January, the Klimt was returned to the museum out of the blue. It was delivered by a lawyer who explained his client, said former secretary, has died in December and left explicit instructions in her will to recover the work from her closet and give it back to the city.

But how did the Klimt drawing end up in a closet? According to [Julius Stieber, the director of culture and education for the City of Linz], the secretary’s will said that in 1964, she noticed some irregularities with the documentation of the Schiele pictures after a loan to the Albertina Museum in Vienna, and notified the Neue Galerie’s then-director, Walter Kasten.

Mr. Kasten told her to keep the irregularities quiet and gave her the Klimt drawing as “hush art,” Mr. Steiber said, further describing the will’s account of the events. “For years the Klimt hung in her apartment, but when the Jäger case became public, she hid it in her wardrobe,” Mr. Stieber said.

“It’s like a thriller,” Klaus Luger, the mayor of Linz, said in a news conference on Tuesday.

The secretary has not been named for legal reasons. The three Schiele pieces are still missing and there is no evidence she was involved in their loss. Was Kasten handing out art like candy to cover his tracks? The police investigation is ongoing.

Meanwhile, the discovery of the 1990 letter, which had also fallen through the museum’s cracks, has led to a reopening of the court case. It could be pivotal in determining whether the heirs waited too long to pursue their case. The statute of limitations may have run out.

The drawing is now on display in the 1918 – Klimt – Moser – Schiele exhibition at the Lentos Museum. It runs through May 21st, 2018. After it closes, the drawing will be returned to the Jäger family as long as they repay the €100,000 the museum paid them for it.

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Ugly Sweater-wearing idiot steals thumb of terracotta warrior

Saturday, February 17th, 2018

An individual who can only be described as a complete dumbass has been busted by the FBI for breaking the thumb off a Terracotta Warrior on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and hiding it in his desk drawer. It’s incalculably sad that this 24-year-old loser who still lives at home with Mommy and Daddy was at the museum on the evening of December 21st just to attend an Ugly Sweater Party. He was able to access the room where 10 priceless terracotta warriors, among them the Cavalryman standing next to a horse, were on display simply by walking through a door carelessly left unlocked by (Keystone) rent-a-cops and stepping over the black rope capable of cordoning off nothing and nobody.

He got a couple of his friends to join him, but they quickly left because they’re not complete dumbasses. He lingered a bit, looking at the statues with light from his cell, putting his arm around the Cavalryman and taking a selfie like an idiot. Then he deliberately with malice aforethought snapped off one of the statue’s thumbs and slipped it in his pocket before decamping.

We know all this now because the FBI’s crack Art Crime squad reviewed security tape footage and saw it all go down. The museum staff only noticed the damage to the Cavalryman on January 8th, more than two weeks after it was looted. That’s when the FBI stepped in. FBI Special Agent Jacob Archer compared the surveillance footage to credit card receipts for the night and identified the thief as Michael Rohana of Bear, Delaware.

When the agent showed up at the Rohana household, Michael folded like an origami crane.

In front of his father, Rohana admitted it that he had stashed the thumb in his desk drawer.

A U.S. attorney has decided to charge him with theft of a major artwork from a museum, concealment of major artwork stolen from a museum, and interstate transportation of stolen property.

He was arrested and released on a 15,000-USD bail, on the condition that he hand over his passport, consent to drug testing, and refrain from leaving the country before trail.

Meanwhile, the museum has reviewed its security systems and procedures in the wake of this debacle.

The actions of one jackhole and the failure to follow any number of responsible security protocols shouldn’t irredeemably taint the exhibition. This particular group of warriors and artifacts have only been shown in two museums in the US. The first was the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, from which they all survived unscathed. The Franklin is the second and therefore the only one on the East Coast. It’s the first time in 30 years that the City of Brotherly Love has had any Terracotta Warriors come stay for a while and given the colossal miscarriage of stewardship, it may be more than 30 years before they come back. Plus, they’ve created a nifty Augmented Reality app that allows visitors the chance to see the warriors in virtual close-up and to view them with digital versions of the original weapons and accessories that have long since been destroyed or lost. The Cavalryman would likely have held his horse’s reins in one hand and a spear in the other. The digital view includes those long-gone accoutrements.

Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor runs through March 4th of this year.

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Sea monsters and murder scandal in one dress

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

The Yale Center for British Art recently acquired a portrait of a young lady by renowned Jacobean painter William Larkin. The panel painting is believed to be a depiction of Lady Jane Thornhaugh, wife of Sir Francis Thornhaugh, because its ownership history can be traced back through family inheritance to an 18th century Thornhaugh. The inscription provides a date for the portrait — 1617 — and the age of the subject as 17. Assuming on solid grounds that the sitter was a Thornhaugh, only Lady Jane could fit the date and age.

William Larkin’s portraits of early 17th century aristocracy and nobility capture more than just the individuals’ looks. They are invaluable records of the fashions, textiles, accessories, furnishings and styles of the most rarified denizens of James I’s court. Lady Thornhaugh’s gown in this portrait provides a glimpse into the playful motifs popular in Jacobean times, and is even a little scandalous, and I don’t mean the more than generous décolleté.

She is wearing a masque costume with a pale yellow lace collar and a silk gown embroidered with fantastical flora and fauna, including insects, birds and numerous sea monsters diving in and out of the embroidery. As if that weren’t cool enough (and it is), the yellow color of her lace collar and cuff is a nod to a huge scandal that rocked high society shortly before the portrait was painting.

It all started with a poem in praise of the ideal wife. The poet was Sir Thomas Overbury, one of King James I’s favored courtiers. He introduced his bestie Robert Carr to court and Carr quickly rose in the ranks of the king’s retinues, soon becoming his favorite and among the most powerful men in England. Overbury was seen as Carr’s puppetmaster, largely because he was. When Carr began an affair with Frances Howard, Countess of Essex, Overbury protested that it would harm his standing at court as she was notoriously unchaste. Carr ratted him out to Frances Howard, so when Overbury wrote and circulated A Wife, she was sure that was a direct hit on her as the embodiment of none of those wifely virtues.

The Countess schemed to take Overbury down, spreading malicious gossip about him and then convincing the King to offer him an ambassadorship to Russia which Overbury would turn down, offending James. Overbury got thrown in the Tower of London for that offense, and was dead within months.

Two months after Overbury’s death, Frances Howard had successfully secured an annulment from her husband and remarried to none other than Robert Carr. That’s when the rumors started that there was some kind of shenanigan afoot. Overbury had died too conveniently and too quickly. Could Frances Howard have had a hand in it?

It took two years for anyone to look into it, but when King James I reluctantly agreed to an investigation, famed jurist Edward Coke and philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon were selected to lead it. The trial in 1616 revealed that Frances Howard had definitely had a hand way up in it. She had replaced the Lord Lieutenant of the Tower with one of her minions and got a new gaoler appointed to tend to Overbury. The gaoler, Richard Weston, poisoned Overbury with sulfuric acid. He was aided in this by Anne Turner, another minion of Frances Howard’s who was well-known for her skills as a yellow starcher who produced the pale yellow collar and cuffs so favored by the fashionable set at court and so sharply detailed in Larkin’s portrait.

Frances Howard and Robert Carr were convicted of the murder, but quickly pardoned by King James. Anne Turner was hanged from her neck until dead, a neck adorned, as poetic justic would have it, with a yellow starched ruff.

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Mauritshuis identifies “copy” as original Jan Steen

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

A work in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) long believed to be an 18th century copy of Jan Steen’s The Mocking of Samson has been identified as an original painting by the Dutch Golden Age master himself. The KMSKA, currently closed for renovations, sent the painting to the Mauritshuis in The Hague as part of a long-time collaboration that has born such extraordinary fruit that a new Jan Steen has now been added to the museum’s permanent collection.

The painting caught the eye of Mauritshuis conservation experts when they were considering which works were good candidates for inclusion in the upcoming exhibition dedicated to Steen’s Histories, i.e., his depictions of scenes from Biblical and Classical mythology.

Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis: “During the process of selecting the loans for the Jan Steen’s Histories exhibition, our curator Ariane van Suchtelen had a strong suspicion that The Mocking of Samson was not a copy, but had actually been painted by Jan Steen himself.

After further research, restoration and technical examination we have come to the conclusion that not only is this painting by the master himself, but that it is still in excellent condition. It’s as if the canvas is fresh out of Jan Steen’s studio – thrilling!”

Conservators were surprised to find when looking at the back on the canvas that unlike most 17th century paintings, Samson had never been relined. The practice of gluing a second canvas to the back of the first to support it was widespread, but this painting was the original canvas alone still on its original strainer (fixed wooden supports that, unlike stretchers, cannot be adjusted at the corners to tighten the frame when the canvas slackens) attached with its original nails, no less.

Fragmentary evidence added more authentic detail. There are additional holes at the canvas edge where string had once been threaded through to connect the canvas to the frame when Steen was creating the painting. Some fragments of that string are still in those holes.

Then, when the yellowed and cracked varnish layer on top of the painting was removed during conservation, the paint itself was found to be in superior condition, with brilliant colors, clear brushstrokes and negligible wear and tear. It’s very rare for a 17th century painting to make it to the 21st in such exceptionally good condition. Perhaps its years of misidentification was salutary to its long-term survival, as nobody bothered trying to restore it with practices that would later prove destructive.

The Mauritshuis has been working assiduously with Shell researchers for six years in an attempt to pin down the chronology of Steen’s oeuvre. Very few of his works have firm dates — about 10% of his surviving paintings — so museum experts have teamed up with experts at the Shell Technology Centre in Amsterdam to examine as many Steens as possible. They use a scanning electron microscope with energy dispersing X-rays to examine the pigments and determine the chemical makeup of the paint and the concentrations of each element.

One of the pigments, a bright green earth color that wasn’t used much in the 17th century, appears unusually frequently in Jan Steen’s late period shortly before his death when he had returned to his hometown of Leiden. As luck would have it, The Mocking of Samson also contains the tell-tale green earth pigment. It was used in the stash of the standard-bearer on the right. That dates the work to the 1670s.

The newly rediscovered painting, now fully restored and ready for primetime, will join its thematic brethren in Jan Steen’s Histories when it opens at the Mauritshuis on February 15th. Once some of his most popular and expensive paintings, Steen’s histories fell out of fashion in latter part of the 18th century. His humorous, playful, juicy depictions of the great soap opera-like dramas of Samson and Delilah, Lot and his daughters and the worshipping of the Golden Calf, so enjoyed by 17th century patrons, were held to be in poor taste a century later, and were somewhat ostracized by collectors and institutions. Even the Mauritshuis only added one of Steen’s history paintings to its fabled collection in 2011. That’s a long time for a category of works by such an important artist to be on the outside, lurid little faces pressed against the glass. The museum is making up for lost time by putting on this exhibition with the work in its collection, Moses and Pharaoh’s Crown, and loans from other collections around the world.

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Getty acquires 5th c. B.C. Etruscan sun god appliqué

Friday, February 9th, 2018

The J. Paul Getty Museum is the proud new owner of an exceptional Etruscan bronze appliqué depicting the sun god Usil. Dating to the early 5th century B.C. (500-475 B.C.), the striking piece is eight inches high and features Usil standing with arms at his sides, fingers splayed, a nimbus of solar rays adorns his head and large wings spread from his shoulders. He wears a mantle draped over both shoulders and a diadem.

As with the Greek and Roman sun deities, Usil drove the sun from the eastern sea west across the sky on his chariot, and it’s likely this piece was used to decorate just such a vehicle, albeit a more terrestrial iteration. The back of the bronze is unworked and flat and there are four places for attachment pins (two pins have survived) in the center and base which were used to mount it to something made of wood. Etruscan nobles were often buried with their chariots, and ornaments like the bronze appliqué of Usil would be attached to them to link them to the mythological motif of the sun being driven through the sky.

A very similar fitting was discovered in excavations between 1760 and 1775 at the Roma Vecchia estate on the Appia Antica by gemstone carver Antonio Pazzaglia. This was the first conscious discovery of an archaic chariot, although people at the time thought it was Roman, not Etruscan, and Pazzaglia put the extant pieces back together in something of a fanciful manner with interpolations from other locations and time periods, a commonplace practice at the time. Engraver Francesco Piranesi, eldest son on the famous documenter of antiquities Giovanni Battista Piranesi, indulged in a fancy of his own when he depicted it as a triumphal chariot from the Augustan era in a 1778 he co-authored with his father. It looks nothing like that today — now in the Vatican Museums, it was restored to our best knowledge of historical accuracy in the 1990s — but the print clearly shows the Usil plaque, the first of its kind ever discovered.

This plaque was one of four similar ones unearthed in 1845 in the Tomb with the Quadriga in Vulci, a spectacular chariot burial that included the skeletal remains of horses along with the chariot they would have pulled in life. Each of the appliqués are slightly different, with variations in plate form, size, rivet position and facial features, but the evidence suggests they were all made by the same bronze-casting shop in Vulci, a prominent Etruscan city that was known for its outstanding metal work.

Two of the plaques from the Quadriga Tomb are in the National Etruscan Museum of the Villa Giulia in Rome and one in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. This was the only one of the group in private hands, and is the best preserved of all of them. It sold at a Christie’s auction in December 2017 for £296,750 ($410,400). Now we know the buyer was the Getty Museum.

“This bronze appliqué that probably decorated an Etruscan chariot or funeral cart is of exceptional quality, representing the peak period of an artistic milieu in which Greek and Italic aesthetics merged to create a distinctively Etruscan style,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Bronze statuettes and reliefs are a particular strength of the Getty’s collection of Etruscan art and the Usil appliqué’s rarity and quality will assure it a significant presence in the newly reinstalled gallery at the Villa dedicated to this fascinating culture.” […]

This newest acquisition will go on display in the reinstalled Getty Villa when it opens in April 2018, and will join several related Etruscan bronzes, including a vessel foot depicting Usil in winged boots running over the crests of waves; and a lion head attachment with glass paste eyes, which likely capped the end of a chariot pole. A pair of candelabra with finials of a youth dancing and playing castanets is also attributed to a Vulcian workshop, which produced fine metalware for an international Mediterranean clientele.

The appliqué was acquired in the 1920s in Monte Carlo by Sylvie Bonneau-Arfa (b. about 1907), née Fatma-Enayet Arfa, the daughter of the Persian ambassador to the Russian court. In 1970 the appliqué went up for auction but failed to sell and was returned to the family. It had been brought to the attention of the Swiss archaeologist Hans Jucker in 1968, and was subsequently on loan to the Historisches Museum in Bern, Switzerland during the 1970s. The Getty acquired it at auction from the descendants of Ms. Bonneau-Arfa.

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Portrait of Henry VIII is truly Tudor

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

An oil on panel portrait of King Henry VIII in the Bath’s Victoria Art Gallery long believed to be a 19th century reproduction has been found to be a genuine Tudor-era artwork. It was donated to the Bath & North East Somerset Council in the 1800s and was thought to be a copy of a copy. This particular portrait of Henry was originally a mural in his apartment at Whitehall Palace by the king’s favorite court painter Hans Holbein, but the original is long gone. It was destroyed in the fire that burned down the palace in 1698.

The Whitehall mural was copied by many artists, and once the mural was lost, the copies were copied. The Victoria Art Gallery’s version is of higher quality than most of the other later copies, however, so when the painting had to be sent to specialists for conservation, the council had the wood panels dated using dendrochronology. Counting tree rings and matching their patterns doesn’t always work for thin panels (as opposed to logs or thick timbers), but researchers got lucky this time. The portrait was painted between 1537 and 1557, which makes it one the earliest surviving portraits of Henry VIII, who died exactly halfway through the estimated date range.

The dating of the painting was paid for by the Friends of the Victoria Art Gallery. The Chairman, Michael Rowe, said: “The Friends of the Gallery are committed to supporting original research into the gallery collections and were delighted to fund the dendrochronology. We look forward to further research into the origins of this important picture.”

Councillor Paul Myers, cabinet member for Economic and Community Regeneration, said: “This is one of the oldest and best pictures of Henry VIII in the world, and we are very fortunate to have it in the council’s public art collection. The painting will soon be back on display at the Victoria Art Gallery, where visitors will be able to see it for free in the Upper Gallery.”

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